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Reference group
Archigram (act. 1961–1974) was a group of six architects, based principally in London, who were associated with the preparation of an avant-garde magazine, Archigram, published in nine main issues between 1961 and 1970, with a further ‘half-issue’ in 1974. The magazine's title was derived from a conjunction of the words ‘architecture’ and ‘telegram’ and from 1963 the name was also adopted by the group's members: Peter Cook (b. 1936), Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton (b. 1935), David Greene (b. 1937), Ron Herron, and Michael Webb (b. 1937). The group's existence was never formally declared, nor was it ever dissolved, though between 1970 and 1974 a London architectural office—first at 20 Newman Passage, and from 1971 at 52 Endell Street, Covent Garden—was officially in practice as Archigram Architects, staffed principally by Chalk, Cook, and Herron. Archigram Architects closed in 1974 after its major project, an entertainments centre for Monte Carlo won in an international competition, was cancelled.

Archigram was initially distributed nationally in dozens of copies, and eventually internationally in thousands of copies, with readerships in continental Europe, the USA, and Japan. The group was recognized for devising a pop architecture comparable to pop art, and gained a reputation for being charismatic, innovative, and for courting popular appeal. The Archigram group and Archigram magazine helped inspire a resurgence in architectural ‘avant-gardism’ in the 1960s through their heady vision, superbly executed in drawings, of an architecture recalling expressionism, Dada, futurism, constructivism, advertisements, comics, science fiction, and the space race (the latter visible, for example, in Chalk's capsule homes project, 1964, inspired by space capsules, and Webb's Suitaloon, 1968, inspired by space suits). Archigram designs were an important source of the so-called high-tech style of architecture that came to prominence in the early 1970s; and, though the group had only a small exhibition there, the Expo '70 at Osaka, Japan, may be seen as a physical manifestation of designs from Archigram.

The low-budget Archigram began as a compilation primarily of experimental projects from former students at the Architectural Association and Regent Street Polytechnic school of architecture. The first issue was the work of the group's youngest members, Cook, Greene, and Webb, who were recent graduates now working at established London architectural offices like that of James Cubitt. For the second issue (1962) Cook, Greene, and Webb invited Herron, Chalk, and Crompton to join them, the latter three being established members of the powerful London county council architects department, where the group's oldest members, Chalk and Herron, had met in 1955. The third issue of Archigram again involved all six architects who, in the same year (1963) and at the instigation of Theo Crosby (1925–1994), began working together in the architect's department of Taylor Woodrow Construction. Archigram's members were initially fascinated by the architectural style of the 1950s and 1960s known as brutalism, which aimed to revisit with ‘brutal’ honesty and clarity the technologies, materials, and untried possibilities of modern architecture. Brutalist buildings typically countered the predominant whiteness and glassiness of the ‘international style’ with aggressively sculptural and complex buildings of raw steel and concrete. At London county council, for instance, Herron, Chalk, and Crompton were brought into the special works division that designed London's South Bank Centre (1960–64), one of the most extreme examples of British brutalism. This major new cultural facility on the River Thames included the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Concert Hall, and its layered, irregular polygonal decks and staircases executed in shuttered concrete have proved perennially controversial. The two years spent at Taylor Woodrow further solidified the group's working relationship. With other architects at the company they provided innovative and provocative proposals for urban renewal—all of which remained unbuilt—with those for housing in Fulham and for Euston Station receiving most attention. The convivial experience of working with one another at Taylor Woodrow also led to extensive teaching and exhibition collaborations between Archigram members from 1963 into the 1970s.

Archigram's architectural images rank as some the most memorable of the 1960s. The artistic liberty of Archigram's style, which showed the inspirations of psychedelia and the seaside, was regarded with circumspection by most mainstream practising architects, critics, and teachers—some of whom felt that Archigram lacked a serious regard for architecture and its heritage. But Archigram's intervention also delighted many students who saw in it an anti-establishment gesture in tune with the radical political mood of the mid-1960s. In the critic and historian Reyner Banham, Archigram found its most brilliant interlocutor, and in the architect Cedric Price they found their most provocative fellow traveller.

Uniting the members of Archigram and its supporters was an alarm that architectural modernism was no longer a force for innovation, as it had been during the inter-war period, and that it had become a paternalistic and bureaucratic repertory for private- and public-sector urban renewal. Archigram's bid to bring architecture in line with recent technological and cultural innovations continued projects conducted by other metropolitan art circles, including the new brutalists and the Independent Group, who gathered at London's Royal College of Art or the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the 1950s and 1960s. The influence of these circles was especially apparent at Archigram's 1963 exhibition, ‘Living City’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, for which they created a walk-through environment composed of collaged pictures and urban ephemera. With the ‘Living City’ exhibition Archigram sought to persuade visitors that cities should be designed not solely as functional organizations of space but as the machines of a festive, perpetually changing culture.

The attention paid in the ‘Living City’ exhibition to the more intangible qualities of architectural experience (like movement, sound, leisure, and consumption), rather than to built form, highlighted a key theme in Archigram's work. The group's visual presence was overwhelming, with buildings of the future depicted as giant, moving machines, as in two of its best-known projects from 1964: Peter Cook's Plug-in City and Ron Herron's Walking City, the former comprising a substructure supporting the perpetual movement of interchangeable parts; the latter a city-machine rolling across the landscape on telescopic legs. At the same time Archigram's literary expressions—accompanied by an increasingly ethereal style of drawing from the mid- to late 1960s—demanded the ‘disappearance’ of architecture into discrete servicing networks that occupants would barely notice.

Architecture, as Archigram's members argued (in a film for the BBC in 1966 as well as in their magazine and teaching), would soon evolve from its traditional hard and fixed form. In the future buildings would be temporary, industrially produced, interchangeable, and even disposable. This was a philosophy of architecture adapted by Archigram from the American inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller, known for popularizing the geodesic dome and other alternatives to conventional architecture. In such projects as Webb's Rent-a-Wall (1966), and in the Control and Choice presented by Cook, Herron, Chalk, and their assistants at the Paris biennale in 1967, Archigram proposed that the walls of conventional buildings would be replaced by climatic control systems, sounds, and images. This would afford a convenience, freedom, and inventiveness previously unknown in architecture. Had it been built, Archigram's Monte Carlo proposal would have tested this idea, since it offered no more than a subterranean dome containing the equipment for a variety of entertainments—there being no obvious building. The implication was that decision-making would devolve from architects to occupants, and that the spaces in which people lived would be organized less by fixed buildings and more by media, as was also then being argued by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. In its proposals Archigram drew on a diffuse range of ideas about the nature of freedom arising from youth empowerment, class mobility, consumerism, and an exploration of art as a lived medium—rather than as the creation of singular works of art like paintings and buildings.

In the later 1960s and early 1970s Archigram faced criticism, particularly from an increasingly radicalized student body, for its insensitivity to such emerging political movements as neo-Marxism, feminism, and ecology. Indeed Archigram was avowedly apolitical, arguably grounded in a 1950s politics of affluence in which hopes for social change were founded neither on sudden Marxist revolution nor the rationalist legacy of the enlightenment, but on greater access to goods, services, and culture. In order to do this, Archigram members seemed to assume that work would become automated, making everyone a bourgeois leisure-seeker. The backlash against technocracy that began on the political left in the late 1960s continued in the 1970s and 1980s as architecture experienced a ‘postmodern’ reaction among conservative practitioners. Yet in the early twenty-first century, with the world linked by information technology and largely experienced through the media, Archigram's ideas remain prescient. Notwithstanding the influence of its architectural theory the group continues to be principally associated with the high style of the 1960s and its most visible manifestations, as seen for instance in the Pompidou Centre in Paris (Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, 1971–7), which bore the strong imprint of Archigram's design language.

The legacy of the group's ideas and images is as potent as it is hard to quantify. Very few are avowed followers of Archigram in the way that, for instance, architects have followed Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, or Le Corbusier. Yet reactions to Archigram (positive and negative) left their mark on the careers of celebrated architects, especially those who began practising during Archigram's heyday or who studied at architectural schools in Europe and the United States where its members taught. From the mid-1960s, for example, Michael Webb became more akin to a corresponding member of the group, having taken up a post at the Cooper Union, New York City. Warren Chalk similarly held visiting lectureships at universities in the United States, Canada, and England from the late 1960s, while Ron Herron followed a period at the University of California at Los Angeles (1968–70) with posts at the Architectural Association and the University of East London. In 2002 the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded its Annie Spink award to Peter Cook and David Greene in recognition of their later teaching careers—Cook having become director of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, in 1990, and Greene professor of architecture at the University of Westminster in 1997. Minor structures completed by the Archigram office between 1972 and 1974—a play centre for Calverton End in Milton Keynes, a swimming pool and kitchen block for the musician Rod Stewart at Windsor, and the ‘Instant Malaysia’ exhibition for the Commonwealth Institute, London—did not alter the perception of Archigram as unbuilt and utopian, though two of its members did enjoy noted careers as architects in their own right. Herron's Imagination Headquarters on Store Street, London (1989), for example, was a late exemplar of the Archigram style, boasting a silicon-coated fabric roof stretched between two older buildings, its spacious interior crisscrossed by overhead walkways. Likewise Peter Cook, in partnership with architects like Christine Hawley, Colin Fournier, and Gavin Robotham, has been associated with landmark buildings including the Kunsthaus, Graz, Austria (with Fournier, 2003) and the Olympic Stadium, London (with Populous, 2012). Perhaps the most dynamic member of the group, Cook was elected a Royal Academician (2003) and knighted in 2007 for services to architecture and teaching.

Archigram moved steadily from the vanguard to the establishment without ever quite losing its mischievous reputation. If in the 1960s the group seemed like a prank, it was an ultimately serious one that sought a new, meritocratic, and more energetic image of Britain. Sometimes drawing comparison with the Monty Python comedy troupe (founded in 1969), Archigram capitalized on the contemporary fashion for English eccentricity. But the group may also be located within a more conservative tradition, as expressed by the earlier arts and crafts and garden city movements, in which architecture serves as a means to lessen the deleterious effects of industrialization through pleasure. Warren Chalk and Ron Herron died in 1987 and 1994 respectively. In 2002 the four remaining members received the Royal Institute of British Architects' royal gold medal, awarded to Archigram in recognition of the group's promotion of ‘a new sensibility which sought to re-evaluate architectural practice and to re-define the nature of architecture itself’ (RIBA citation, quoted in Sadler, 3) . Since 1994 a travelling exhibition, ‘Archigram: Experimental Architecture, 1961–74’, has toured galleries worldwide, and in 2010 the online Archigram archival project was launched by the University of Westminster.

Simon Sadler

Sources  

Archigram, 1–9 (1961–70); 9.5 (1974) · S. Sadler, Archigram: architecture without architecture (2005) · P. Cook and others, eds., Archigram (1972) · Archigram Archival Project, archigram.westminster.ac.uk, accessed on 14 April 2011, University of Westminster

Likenesses  

group portraits, photographs, 1963–2002, Archigram Archival Project ·